The final episode of the second season of "Star Trek: Enterprise" and the first episode of its third season — titled "The Expanse" (May 21, 2003) and "The Xindi" (September 10, 2003), respectively — centered on a new "Star Trek" story arc about a mysterious spherical probe that appears over Earth and unleashed a deadly energy beam that destroys the state of Florida and kills seven million people. The attackers did not identify themselves, and Earth was not at war. This terrorist incident changed the course of the series, and Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) was assigned a revenge-based military mission to track down the assailants and bring them to justice. It was very clearly a metaphor for 9/11, an event that "Enterprise" was always living in the shadow of.
Previously adhering to a more traditional drama-of-the-week structure, "Enterprise" dramatically shifted gears, diving into a season-long story arc. Some Trekkies found the shift to be exciting new territory for "Enterprise," especially as a common criticism of the first two seasons was that they were stodgy and archetypal, rather than exciting or dynamic. The focus on military revenge, however, was openly antithetical to the franchise's known propensity for diplomacy and utopian idealism. During the George W. Bush administration, no one was in the mood for stories of making peace and world unity. The third season of "Enterprise" revealed that "Star Trek" was struggling to find a place in the post-9/11 world.
Someone who felt that "Enterprise" was tilting a little too hard from established "Star Trek" precepts was actor John Billingsley, who played the jovial Denobulan Dr. Phlox. In a recent interview with TrekMovie, Billingsley revealed his trepidation about the Xindi arc on "Enterprise," and how newly assigned showrunner Manny Coto was bringing a strange anti-"Trek" vibe into the room.
The Torture Principle
It's worth noting that after "Enterprise," Manny Coto worked on the hit Fox series "24," a TV series that featured brazen acts of torture and violence at the hands of brutal American spies. The idea of "24" was that violent terrorist attacks were always immediately nigh, and the only way get fast information from apprehended antagonists was to torture them. It was a series that regrettably reflected a lot of American military strategy at the time, a strategy dramatized in terse military films like "Zero Dark Thirty." Coto, of course, was a more nuanced filmmaker than just his eventual work on "24" might indicate, as he previously helmed kooky horror films like "Dr. Giggles," an episode of "Tales from the Crypt," and several kid-friendly sci-fi movies for Disney and Trimark. Coto also worked extensively on Ryan Murphy's "American Horror Story."
But Billingsley felt that it was Coto and his bent toward "24"-style terrorist drama that shaped the way the third season of "Enterprise" was shaping up. The actor said:
"Manny Coto was brought on, who subsequently went on to write for '24.' And he wrote some of my very favorite episodes. But Manny, who I've worked with on a number of occasions, has a different sensibility, certainly, than I do, and I think probably a somewhat different sensibility than some of the 'Star Trek' creators. So some of the third season was, in my opinion, given the nature of what happened on 9/11, leaning towards a philosophy that didn't strike me necessarily as the Star Trek philosophy."
Billingsley, however, was quick to point out that Coto was capable and talented: "I say this with all due respect and deference to Manny; again, I think he wrote some of the best shows we did."
Good Guys Vs. Bad Guys
But Billingsley still saw many ends-justify-the-means episodes starting to appear in "Enterprise." He even recalls the second episode of season 3, "The Anomaly" (September 17, 2003), featuring a direct "24" comparison. Captain Archer, previously a pretty bright-eyed and optimistic character, immediately became dark and vengeful, and even suggested something no Starfleet captain would even think do to. As Billingsley described it:
"There was an episode in which the question of whether or not it was legitimate for our captain to throw somebody into space because they weren't coughing up the goods … it was presented as a moral dilemma, fair, but it was very much the same moral dilemma that kind of undercut '24.' And it was very much in our consciousness at the time, do the ends justify the means? Is it okay to waterboard somebody? Candidly, as a leftist, I was uncomfortable by aspects of season 3."
Again, though, Billingsley stopped to compliment Coto's talents. The interviewer pointed out that stories of exploration and discovery were typically more in the "Star Trek" wheelhouse, and typically more appealing to Trekkies. The "get the bad guy" mentality was something more suited to "Star Wars." Still, that's where "Enterprise" was, and Billingsley wasn't always comfortable with that. It wasn't until the third season concluded, and it was revealed that the "bad guys" were, in fact, pawns in an even larger scheme, that Billingsley saw the entire arc as being about the futility of war, and not the righteousness of revenge.
Finding The Sweet Spot
As Billingsley explained:
"I will say, and this has been pointed out to me, that at the end of the third season, it was revealed that the Xindi, too, were being manipulated. And you could argue that there was a … I won't say anti-capitalist viewpoint, but certainly, an anti-colonialist viewpoint being expressed, which is always the thing that I've appreciated about Manny. He's an extremely smart guy, he had an episode that was clearly taking on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.'
The Israeli-Palestinian interpretation is interesting, but Billingsley, an atheist, seems to have taken the correct lesson, saying: "From an atheist point of view, say, a pox on both of your houses to the extent that religion interferes with your capacity to actually get along."
Billingsley also feels that "Enterprise" finally found a good balance of the dark and the light in its fourth and final season. The first, second, and fourth seasons captured the overall pitch for "Enterprise," which was that it was Starfleet's first time at everything, and there was a lot of exciting uncertainty.
"I tend to kind of have complicated feelings about the third season. I think the fourth kind of found that sweet spot. My feeling about the show is … that it's both joyful and confusing. The first ship, the first crew. I liked the fact that the weapons malfunction, I liked the fact that we were afraid to transport, I liked the fact that there was a sense of, 'Should we go, should we stay? What do we do?' I kind of felt they got away from that too quickly.
Sadly, "Enterprise" did not get a fifth season to continue to explore, and never quite found its footing in a post-9/11 world. However, it was fascinating to watch it try.
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The post Why Star Trek: Enterprise Season 3 Was 'Uncomfortable' For John Billingsley appeared first on /Film.